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BWW Review: New England Premiere of THE SMUGGLER: Of Immigrants and the American Dream

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BWW Review: New England Premiere of THE SMUGGLER: Of Immigrants and the American Dream

the smuggler

Written and Directed by Ronán Noone; Scenic Design, Adam Hawkins; Lighting Design, Amanda Fallon; Sound Design, Stephanie Lynn Yackovetsky; Costume Design, Emily Keebler; Properties Design, Cayenne Douglass; Dramaturg, Caity-Shea Violette; Stage Manager, Katherine Humbert

CAST: Billy Meleady

Performances through November 24 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org

Ronán Noone is an Irish-American playwright, an immigrant, who writes about what he knows and what he has lived. In his most recent work, the smuggler, which won the Best Playwright award at the 1st Irish Festival of New York, 2019, he allocates much of that knowledge and experience to the protagonist, Tim Finnegan. Taking on the role and commanding the stage at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, award-winning actor Billy Meleady's masterful performance gives a solo piece the effect of an ensemble of players telling the story.

Noone also directs the play, and he and Meleady have worked together before, their personal connection adding to the richness of the interpretation. Set on a fictional New England island called Amity, the flavor of Martha's Vineyard (where Noone previously lived and worked) permeates the smuggler and is conveyed by Finnegan's circumstances which keep running into dead ends. As an Irish immigrant, his American dream was to become a writer, but he's a bartender until the place where he works shuts down. Scrambling for a paycheck, he grudgingly gets a job with a Brazilian as a painter and driver for his undocumented co-workers, but it also opens his eyes to another darker world.

Finnegan's employment woes are not his only worries, but his wife doesn't let him forget about his poor record as a breadwinner for her and their new son. His father-in-law is only too happy to pile on about his immigrant status, and makes scathing comments that he'll never amount to anything. Making it a family affair, Tim's brother-in-law, a local cop with his own little drama going on, also polices Tim's activities. All of these people are among the ten characters who are smoothly brought to life when Meleady voices them, carrying on both ends of conversations by slight shifts of body language and altering facial expressions and vocal tone or accent.

Equally impressive as his portrayals of the various personas is Meleady's recitation of Noone's script, written in 9000 lines of free verse. I admit to having had some trepidation about that going in, concerned that verse delivered with a brogue could be hard to understand or tedious to listen to, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Similar to understanding and appreciating the words of Shakespeare when spoken by skilled actors, Meleady's animated delivery and rhythmic cadence provide clarity and distinction to the language. Occasionally there's some rhyming, which usually garners a chuckle or two, but mostly not. Rather, the free verse makes the script feel quite fluid and the words flow forth from Meleady like a melody. It also has the effect of making Finnegan pretty likable, not a small order considering some of the dirty business he falls into.

The design elements evoke an ambience of darkness, foreboding, and danger that pervade the story. Scenic designer Adam Hawkins creates the basement locale with a rough wooden staircase descending to a bare floor surrounded by soot-covered red brick walls, dimly lit only by bare bulbs hanging overhead (Amanda Fallon, lighting designer). Sound designer Stephanie Lynn Yackovetsky opens the play with a recording of "Finnegan's Wake," and pipes in Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me" at the conclusion. Emily Keebler costumes Finnegan in a light plaid, three-piece suit that looks more worn than natty, appropriate for his economic status.

Finnegan is the primary driver of the story, but the smuggler is Noone's treatment of a range of immigration issues. The title refers to migrant smuggling, described in the program notes as "illegally moving a consenting person," as opposed to human trafficking, "the nonconsensual moving of a person for the purpose of their exploitation." Of course, it is evident from events that happen in the play that migrants are exploited in a variety of ways, even if their movements are voluntary, and Noone avers that they don't shy away from victimizing each other. When one sees this dramatization of a microcosm of the immigrant experience, and juxtaposes it with the broader immigration situation in our country, it begs the question of why they keep coming. The American dream is apparently still the holy grail.

Photo credit: Stratton McCrady (Billy Meleady)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman